Shortly after 9:00 a.m. on September 11, I got a call from our firstborn, Sarah Faith (23), who works for Morgan Stanley. She was at her office in Midtown Manhattan the Rockefeller Center area about two miles north of the World Trade Center. "Daddy, did you hear about the Trade Center?" I had not. "A plane crashed into it." From her description, it sounded like a horrible accident. I thought a pilot of a small plane must have tried to show off the Towers to some passengers and had simply gone too close or lost control. What else could it be? But while she was on the phone she was looking downtown at the Trade Center from her 28th-floor office window. "Daddy, there was just another explosion in the other tower."
The other tower? I ran up to see the news to learn what had happened. I have been profoundly shaken since.
I Am Shaken for My Family
Sarah's train into Manhattan, it turns out, was not far from what is being called "ground zero" when the first plane crashed into the North Tower. After the second crash, her building, like so many others in New York, was evacuated. (Humorous note: During the evacuation, a woman from Sarah's floor asked, "Is your father on the radio?" "You mean 'Messiah's Minutes'? Yes." The woman turned to her friend, "I'm talking to a girl whose father is on the radio!")
Evacuated, but where could she go? We live in Brooklyn and train service was suspended. Fortunately she was able to go with a few women from the office to the apartment of a co-worker who lives on 92nd & Lexington (still further north, away from the tragedy). The woman who owns the apartment was very kind indeed. Now one daughter was safe (we prayed), but my second-born, Rebeccah Hope (20), was also in Manhattan (having traveled in with Sarah) and we couldn't reach her. Cell phone service had gone down. Rebeccah was at Lincoln Center taking classes at the Alvin Ailey School of Dance. She described her morning this way:
When I walked out of class at 10:30 a.m. with my friend Michelle, there were people talking in the halls about the Trade Center being on fire and about hijacked planes. I couldn't get in touch with my parents and they couldn't reach me because there was no cellular service: everyone's phone was off. I went to my next class and the teacher gave us more detail about the hijacked planes and told us that the towers were severely damaged. We were all devastated, but we did not yet know all of the story: we still didn't know that the buildings had collapsed.
I thought my parents could drive in and pick up me and my friend. I knew my father would want to. But we had no idea what outside was like. We left the building at about 10:45, trying to find a phone to call our parents. All the payphones had long lines. We found a phone in a diner, but we were unable to make calls outside of Manhattan. I left a message on my sister Sarah's voicemail at work and we headed to her office in Rockefeller Center, about a mile away. We didn't know she had been evacuated.
Michelle and I were the only people walking in a downtown direction. There were so many people walking against us, we were literally pushing our way through the crowds. When we got to Sarah's building, we discovered that she, along with thousands of others, had been evacuated from her building at 9:45.
While en route we had seen news flashes telling the actual damage and details concerning the collapse of both towers, so we were more devastated and horrified than before. First we would cry for the people. Then we would cry for the buildings.
We still needed to find a phone and every phone had a line of 40 or more people waiting. We finally found a shorter line on 46th, between 6th and 5th, and we were able to call out of Manhattan. When I spoke to my parents, my Dad gave me the address of Sarah's co-worker's apartment. I started to cry. My Dad told me to write down the friend's address but I didn't have a pen. A woman in line behind me gave me a pen to use. When I tried to return it she said, "Keep it, you might need it again." It was so moving to see how generous people were in the immediate wake of this tragedy. Some stores were giving away refreshments, others were giving away shoes because many people trekking uptown had walked long distances, and some of these were barefoot; buses and trains were fare-free all day. By evening, payphones were free of charge as well.
My Dad had said "Stay away from 5th Ave," because he thought if there were to be another incident, that would be the most likely area of attack. In confusion and grief, we wandered west instead of east, ending up at 11th Ave. Thank God the buses were running at that time. We caught the M 57 on 57th and 11 Ave. and it took us to Lex and 57th. From there we walked to 92nd and found Sarah. We stayed with her until subway service resumed later that evening. Our train was not running so we had to take a different line that left us in another area of Brooklyn. My Dad was able to pick us up there.
It's not as though we suffered in any way, but the day was so traumatic and uncertain for us. Michelle and I weren't even sure if we were safe walking at one point because we thought we might be vulnerable to another air attack. Thank God we were safe. It was scary and horrible being away from our families.
I had retrieved Jed (14) and Anna (13) from their Christian school at midday. As I stepped outside my home to get in the van, the smell of the Trade Center fires had reached us in southern Brooklyn, and only got stronger as I headed north to pick up the kids. The city smelt and felt the tragedy. Leah Love (18) was in the Urban Nations offices nearby, and Esther (12) was in homeschool. When we were reunited as a family that evening, the relief, especially in Mommy, was palpable. Nevertheless, Sarah was soon back in Manhattan, making use of her training in disaster relief by doing a 13-hour shift at a Red Cross Shelter. But our concerns for our children remain high.
I Am Shaken for My Friends
At the time of the attack, we were bidding adieu to our dear friends, Rev. Paul Murphy, his wife Julie, and their five children who had been visiting from Michigan for a week. After the attack, bridges and tunnels were closed, preventing Rev. Murphy from getting back to Grand Rapids in time to conduct a funeral for a man from their church who had died suddenly. They had to stay in NYC another day. As we watched the horrors unfold before us, Paul like most of us was dumbfounded. But he had an "inside" reason most of us did not have. He had been a construction worker before becoming a minister. "I was one of the men who poured the foundation of the Trade Center. You can't believe how strong it is! How could this be?"
This was one of a thousand questions we'd asked ourselves before day's end. Our friend James Tyne, a leader at Messiah's and an attorney who worked at 7 World Trade Center, arrived from his New Jersey home for a morning meeting at the Trade Center when the first plane hit. He was coming up from the PATH train to the concourse area of the Twin Towers and saw a mixed scene of some people running with alarm, and other people casually drinking coffee. As he looked out into the plaza he saw slabs of concrete and steel. "There must have been an accident," he thought, not quite able to imagine what would cause that debris, but certainly not envisioning the actual state of affairs. Jim was soon huddled outside the Trade Center with thousands of others. Suddenly the second plane crashed into the other tower. People started yelling, "This is not an accident! We are under attack." Knowing, by the grace of God, it was time to leave, Jim quickly made his way west to catch a ferry back to Jersey. As he was walking he looked over his shoulder and saw at least two bodies falling from upper stories. He couldn't bear to look any more. Nothing has been more affecting than the pictures of those who felt they had to jump from the upper floors. When he arrived home to the joyful shouts of his wife and four children, he recounted what had happened. As he was speaking, it became apparent to his wife Josephine that Jim did not yet know the full story: The Twin Towers were no longer there. Jim soon afterward called me and said, "I've never in my life been so happy to make a phone call, just to hear a voice, and just to tell you 'I love you.'"
My closest friend and elder, André Setyon, also works downtown but was on vacation that morning. So we had reason to rejoice. Then we remembered Valeriy Muratov, a member of Messiah's who works in the WTC Marriott. After innumerable phone calls and too many hours, we found that Valeriy had been safely evacuated before his hotel was destroyed in the disaster.
After determining that all Messiah's people were safe, we contacted our sister churches: Kings Highway Reformed Church, The Neighborhood Church of Greenwich Village, and The Bronx Household of Faith. No deaths or injuries to any members. Praise God!
I Am Shaken for New York
I think people around the world are, or are becoming, very sympathetic to how profound the loss of the Trade Center is to New Yorkers. My friend Larry Woiwode has written eloquently about "the importance of place." Our attachment to areas is anchored in outstanding features and symbols. In a deep and real way, true New Yorkers were connected to the Towers. They could be seen from virtually anywhere in the city. I could see them from my third floor window, a dozen miles away. There was a genuine bond between those buildings and our psyches.
We had been planning to have dinner with the Murphys at Windows on the World, the restaurant that was on the 106th floor of the Trade Center, on Monday, September 10, in celebration of our 27th anniversary (Sept. 8). The only reason we did not go was that they were so busy that they had kept me on hold for 20 minutes, so we couldn't confirm availability. We ate locally. The next morning Windows on the World no longer existed, and thousands of people were buried beneath its rubble.
We can't take this in, we can't absorb the magnitude of this loss. It does not stop with deaths and injuries. It will continue for weeks, months, and years to come. Taking down those buildings was make no mistake a tremendous victory for evil. The result of this act of terror is not felt alone in the loss of a landmark, nor alone in the massive loss of life. By taking down the World Trade Center hundreds of businesses were immediately and directly affected, thousands of families were left without breadwinners, and many more thousands of breadwinners have no place to report to work.
The ramifications of this direct hit on the heart of New York will not be fully seen for a time, but they include the bankrupting of businesses and the impoverishment of families, perhaps the beginning of a major recession. Even now, as businesses from 14th Street south are shut, their rents continue to be due, their bills continue to mount, but their incomes have been cut off.
On that fateful day when the Trade Center was destroyed, papers from #7 were blown into the air. They sailed over Brooklyn in the late afternoon sun, making a scene eerier than Hitchcock might have portrayed. Buoyed by a gentle breeze moving south toward Sheepshead Bay (my neighborhood), thousands of sheets of paper shimmered and floated in the sky: looking now like birds, now like UFOs, now like stars, depending on how they caught the waning sunlight. One charred sheet, a scientific printout, landed on my doorstep, a grim souvenir.
I Am Shaken for America
Though this was the worst act of terrorism committed against us, we have no reason to believe that it will be the last. Yet that is not why I shake for my nation. I shake because we seem not to know how to speak with humility before the God of the Bible. I shake because the airwaves have been filled with unending and hyperbolic bravado, without the slightest hint that a tragedy of this proportion would be a perfect occasion for self-examination. I shake because the meaning of the events is being interpreted for the masses by the non-reflective talking heads. I shake because Americans want immediate answers to life's most difficult questions, and they think they have been given the answers by images and emotions. I shake because we don't know the difference between the Kingdom of God and the Brotherhood of Man. I shake because we seem dead to the suggestion that running into action of any sort, without a firm bond with God, leaves us exposed to horrors which could make the Trade Center disaster look like Disneyworld. I shake because this attack is already becoming the occasion for Christians to identify themselves in terms of the State rather than understanding that the State must identify itself in terms of Christ.
I Shake for the Church
I shake for the church for some of these same reasons. We have a church today that does not know where to stand. It does not know that it ought to look in the mirror; it is not even sure where the mirror is. The Bible is the mirror (Jas. 1:22-25), not the television. One cannot gain insight into our current crisis, nor understand the opportunities it may present, by feeding on scraps of diced information supplied by anti-Christian newsroom editors. We're already being made to look like oddballs because our stomachs turn at the ecumenical services we are supposed to embrace.
Some Christians think it will be easy to take back ground for Christ in the wake of this fiasco. This is naïve. People are not looking to Christ. Oh, they are ready to use the church, like Rocky Balboa did on the way to his championship fight: he stopped at the priest's apartment and yelled to his third-floor window, "Father, t'row me down a blessin'." In the short term we well may see a return to "religious" exercises. But is that a return to Christ and His Word?
This naiveté extends to some Christians who think that if we just throw enough money at the problem, we can claim a string of victories. But they fail to consider two things: One, money never bought a conversion; and two, that when it comes to throwing money around, we have long been and long will be unable to compete with the Feds. Think about it. New York has a disaster. The first thing our representatives do is ask Washington for 20 billion dollars. Done! Who can compete with that? GE pledges 10 million, Cisco 4, and on it goes. Competing with the big boys on their terms is like competing with Rome on ritual: you cannot beat 'em. That is why I'm stirred to see the church understand that her best opportunities are not in the brassiest arenas, nor necessarily in the most well-lit venues, nor in the most public places. Rather, our goals should be simple and our works pure. We must, in our day, seek to do "niche ministries." We must put ourselves where governments, with their virtually unlimited resources, nevertheless cannot tread. We must apply ourselves humbly to make Christ known personally in intimate ministry making the best use of limited resources by extensive contact with real people whom we can really help. Programmatic Christianity has been a colossal failure. We must immediately stop using statist and corporate models for ministry.
Faithful ministry is possible, if we would allow Christ, not polls, to measure fidelity. Because many brothers and sisters in Christ have as much as commanded us to, we are venturing to offer, in the days ahead, help in the name of Jesus Christ to those impacted by this horrific tragedy. We have been besieged by Christians who desire to employ the meager, but earnest, resources and contacts of Messiah's Congregation to express their Christian love and concern for those impacted by the tragedy in New York City. We feel obliged humbly compelled, you might say to be so used. At this point we cannot say exactly what form of help we will be offering. Our high priority will be to bring relief to Christians who have suffered loss. It is most fitting that help for Christians come directly from other Christians. Galatians 6:10.
Messiah's Congregation has established a special fund dedicated to bringing relief from the suffering caused by this brutal act of war. We will administer received funds in cooperation with three other NYC churches: Kings Highway Reformed Church (Brooklyn), The Neighborhood Church of Greenwich Village (Manhattan), and The Bronx Household of Faith. Since none of these churches has lost members thank the Sovereign Lord we will be looking to show Christ's love as we learn of secondary and tertiary relations in need of assistance. The stories will, no doubt, be heard soon, and for weeks, if not months, to come. The help we offer will be up close and personal. It will be firstly for those who belong to Christ, from those who belong to Christ, in the hope that others may earnestly desire to belong to Christ, when they see our sincere love for all the saints. Those who would like to support this service to Christ and His own may send offerings to: Messiah's Congregation, 9-11 Relief Fund, 2662 East 24th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11235-2610. Checks should be made out to Messiah's Congregation / 9-11.
I am writing this on September 14, a day our President has set apart as a National Day of Prayer. Let me propose a prayer we ought to consider praying:
Lord, we have not believed as your people should believe. We have not behaved as your people should behave. We have not confessed as your people should confess. Despite all this, our Father, we are your people. When our terrorist enemies train for war, they shoot down cut-out figures with Christian crosses painted on their chests. If we were to fall, the nations would surely say, "Those who were called by the Name of His Son have perished." Do not let our sins become the occasion for dishonor to fall upon the Name of our Savior! O Lord, forgive us! Have pity on us and sustain us. Have mercy on us, God of our Fathers, and strengthen us. We have gone far from our founding, but we have not wandered entirely out of your sight. Look upon us now in your infinite compassion and restore us to Yourself, O God. Use us to crush the enemies of Christ. Use us to build and extend the kingdom of God. In the Name of Christ our only Savior and Lord we pray. Amen.
Let me hear politicians pray this, and television commentators saying a hearty "Amen!" If we would ever see that day, the church of Christ must start shaking instead of resting in the world; the church of Christ must start stirring. She can do this by steering instead of being led by the world. September 11th may be the start of a new beginning. It's something only God our King can grant. O, may He do so!
- Steve M. Schlissel
Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.